What’s the Right Thing to Do: A Meditation on Dharma, Reason and Offering – Part 2

Essay published in Collaboration: Journal of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Vol. 40 (2), pp. 29-33.

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly


Given below is another clear and powerful description about Dharma given by Nolini Kanta Gupta[1] which helps us see how the terms Right, Duty and Dharma are better understood as “degrees of an ascending consciousness”:

We may perhaps view the three terms Right, Duty and Dharma as degrees of an ascending consciousness. Consciousness at its origin and in its primitive formulation is dominated by the principle of inertia (tamas); in that state things have mostly an undifferentiated collective existence, they helplessly move about acted upon by forces outside them. A rise in growth and evolution brings about differentiation, specialisation, organisation. And this means consciousness of oneself of the distinct and separate existence of each and every one, in other words, self-assertion, the claim, the right of each individual unit to be itself, to become itself first and foremost. It is a necessary development; for it signifies the growth of self-consciousness in the units out of a mass unconsciousness or semi-consciousness. It is the expression of rajas, the mope of dynamism, of strife and struggle, it is the corrective of tamas.

In the earliest and primitive society men lived totally in a mass consciousness. Their life was a blind obedience – obedience to the chief – the patriarch or pater familias –- obedience to the laws and customs of the collectivity to which one belonged. It was called duty; it was called even dharma, but evidently on a lower level, in an inferior formulation. In reality it was more of the nature of the mechanical functioning of an automaton than the exercise of conscious will and deliberate choice, which is the very soul of the conception of duty.

The conception of Right had to appear in order to bring out the principle of individuality, of personal freedom and fulfilment. For, a true healthy collectivity is the association and organisation of free and self-determinate units. The growth of independent individuality naturally means at first clash and rivalry, and a violently competitive society is the result. It is only at this stage that the conception of duty can fruitfully come in and develop in man and his society the mode of sattwa, which is that of light and wisdom, of toleration and harmony. Then only a society is sought to be moulded on the principle of co-ordination and co-operation.

Still, the conception of duty cannot finally and definitively solve the problem. It cannot arrive at a perfect harmonisation of the conflicting claims of individual units; for, duty, as I have already said, is a child of mental idealism, and although the mind can exercise some kind of control over life-forces, it cannot altogether eliminate the seeds of conflict that lie imbedded in the very nature of life. It is for this reason that there is an element of constraint in duty… One has to compel oneself, one has to use force on oneself to carry out one’s duty – there is a feeling somehow of its being a bitter pill. The cult of duty means rajas controlled and coerced by sattwa, not the transcendence of rajas. This leads us to the high and supreme conception of Dharma, which is a transcendence of the gunas. Dharma is not an ideal, a standard or a rule that one has to obey: it is the law of self-nature that one inevitably follows, it is easy, spontaneous, delightful. The path of duty is heroic, path of Dharma is of the gods, godly.

The principle of Dharma then inculcates that each individual must, in order to act, find out his truth of being, his true soul and inmost consciousness: one must entirely and integrally merge oneself into that, be identified with it in such a manner that all acts and feelings and thoughts, in fact all movements, inner and outer – spontaneously and irrepressibly well out of that fount and origin.

To reiterate, “each individual must, in order to act, find out his truth of being, his true soul and inmost consciousness….” Not an easy thing to do. Not at all easy.

The above passage also helps us be wary of that advice – listen to that inner voice, because it helps us remember that it takes a whole lot of silencing of other voices of Right, Duty, Law, Religion, Rule, Standard etc. before the voice of the inmost consciousness can even have a chance to be heard.

But then the question arises – what to do, how to decide our actions, make our choices till one is living in one’s soul, one’s truth of being.

[1] Source: Nolini Kanta Gupta, Collected Works, Vol 1, pp. 61-63
Have you read Part 1?

14 thoughts on “What’s the Right Thing to Do: A Meditation on Dharma, Reason and Offering – Part 2

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  1. Many times we can draw inspiration from our scriptures on this topic. Till we ourselves are not able to hear the voice of conciousness clearly, we can go by the examples of the ones we worship. Our scriptures are full of stories that cover almost all situations in life, so when in doubt, we can simply ask ourselves, what would Durga do? or What would Krishna do? etc.. In my personal experience it has helped numerous times and helped me wade through many sticky situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment, Geetanjali. Indeed, to be sure of what is the dharmic thing to do in a tricky situation is not an easy thing. Thankfully we have plenty of examples to help us critically evaluate a situation, as you point out.

      Thanks for visiting the blog!


  2. I was reminded of the term ‘rational self-interest’ when you spoke of rights and duties. While a broader framework of Dharma provides structure and a sense of comfort that an unambiguous guideline must bring, there must be room for an individual’s freedom. The structure must not be at the cost of rational self-interest. No?

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    1. Aha! And that’s why there is so much difficulty in describing or intellectualising this idea of dharma. And that’s exactly why I strongly believe that Mahabharata should be a compulsory course of study in all schools and colleges in India 🙂 No, seriously, from whatever I know and have read of the text and about the text, I think no other literary work comes close to help us explore the numerous nuances of dharma and its expression in all spheres of life, in all aspects of human activity. For example, the rational self-interest that you speak of…wasn’t Duryodhana acting out of his rational self-interest when he arranged the game of dice? So how does his action become adharmic? Or was it adharmic at all? It was definitely in his ‘right’ to arrange that game of dice in order to work toward his ‘right’ to fulfil his kingly ambitions. And yet….
      Really, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that these are such subtle issues, even people like Bhishma and Vidur couldn’t tell what was dharma and what wasn’t when they were put some hard questions by Draupadi. So who are we to even debate? 🙂 And yet we need to have some solid base to stand on when making our choices, our decisions. Otherwise we risk becoming morally neutral as your recent post suggested, no?

      Liked by 1 person

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